Since childhood, Mariam Salah, 22, has been passionate about movies, especially action and horror.
The daughter of Hasan Salah, a Palestinian filmmaker and theater director, it was perhaps inevitable that she would be curious about visual imagery and trickery.
At age 12, the younger Salah began creating her own special makeup effects (SFX), a passion that she would take all the way to university, where, in 2017, she graduated in fine arts from Al-Aqsa University in Gaza.
An artist with a few exhibitions under her belt who has also dabbled in graffiti, Salah has a broad range, but SFX makeup remains her passion. Just a year after graduating, she is already building a reputation for herself in the local field.
The field is small, if burgeoning, and self-taught. Salah is one of just a handful of women in Gaza trying to pursue SFX makeup as a profession, and all of them have had to teach themselves a craft that is both difficult and expensive.
All of them, in addition, have come up against a most formidable obstacle to pursuing their passion, namely the restrictions imposed on imports to Gaza by Israel.
The flipside is that it has forced the three women, and others in the field, to be creative.
Getting around the blockade
Israel’s more than decade-long blockade on Gaza has affected all aspects of life there, including for artists. And many of the very specific materials needed in the SFX field – from latex, to special glue, to leather masks – have fallen foul of a draconian Israeli “dual-use” policy that has even barred the entry of “writing implements”.
Salah did not give up, however. She would use flour, clay and office supplies to substitute for materials she could not import and learned, through trial and error, what would work and what wouldn’t.
Beeswax turned out to be a good substitute for latex to imitate human skin, for instance. One of Salah’s first creations was made in this way – a wound on her brother’s hand that she posted on her facebook account causing some disgust to an audience not acquainted with such image fakery.
Others have questioned her motivation in a place where everyone is struggling for their livelihoods and freedom. Gaza is a place of many wounds, and violent death is an ever-present possibility. But Salah’s is a passion for an art, she said, as well as an attempt to escape both the mental and physical prison of Gaza.
“I am not interested in politics,” she told The Electronic Intifada. “I am interested in art. I hate politics. Politics holds me back from traveling overseas to learn my trade properly. Politics forces me to learn from the internet and make my own materials.”
Her effort is also an attempt to create a space for creative people and innovation, she said.
“It is true that Gaza has enough bloodshed. But we also must produce films and series to talk about many issues in our society. This specialization is a great challenge. It’s adventurous and innovative.”
From medicine to special effects
Today, Salah has branched out from purely makeup effects to actual prosthetics, making human organs and limbs. She is able to make a man look like a woman and vice versa, or realistically age a person.
And her skills see her in demand in the local film scene. Last year, she worked on a film for the Palestinian Center for Human Perseverance about a young man who lost his sight and how operations eventually enabled him to regain vision.
She has supplied many of the visual tricks in a hidden camera show, Tawal Balak (Take it Easy), which ran for two seasons in 2017 and 2018, and also worked the makeup and special effects for the youth soap opera, Dandara (dandruff).
“My dream is to work in Hollywood or Bollywood,” Salah said. “But in the meantime, I run this small specialized company in Gaza and I avoid political disputes and the occupation in my work.”
Like Salah, Alaa Abu Mustafa learned the art of SFX makeup entirely online. The 22-year-old fourth-year pharmacy student at the University of Palestine from Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip is specializing in creating horrifying zombies.
Studying online also meant learning English for Abu Mustafa. There were few quality SFX makeup resources available to her in Arabic, Abu Mustafa told the Electronic Intifada, so she had to rely on foreign-language video tutorials.
And she also faced the same obstacle as Salah, with Israel’s blockade on Gaza preventing the entry of many of the materials she needed for her work. And like Salah, creativity provided a way around.
“Masks and some kinds of wigs are not available in Gaza due to the Israeli siege. So we had to find alternatives,” said Abu Mustafa, adding, with some pride: “The [West Bank] Palestinian, Jordanian, and Egyptian cinema professionals who contact me are astonished at the moulds I’ve made using just the simple materials and tools available to me.”
Abu Mustafa always had artistic leanings, but chose to study pharmacology, she said, since it seemed a more practical choice in the job-scarce Gaza Strip. But as her abilities have expanded, she has become keener to pursue a career in SFX makeup and she is now having to balance her studies and her creative work.
She’s also met some resistance to her choice of work, in part because some have suggested that women should not be engaged in such grisly work. But Abu Mustafa brushes off such objections.
“We are imprisoned in Gaza,” she said. “But we can see the world via social media. And we can improve ourselves online. I’ve managed to learn other forms of art like three-dimensional drawing, and makeup for fashion.”
Abu Mustafa has put her skills to use as a children’s face painter in several events for local charities. She also worked on an information film for the Ma’an Development Center about the dangers of approaching suspicious or explosive items.
Naghem al-Kawami, 19, has similarly forged a professional path for herself in the SFX makeup field.
“There are young women here who ignore the restrictions of the siege and occupation to learn new subjects on the internet,” al-Kawami told The Electronic Intifada. “In spite of the electricity crisis that prevents us from communicating with the outer world, we use what little hours of power we have to learn useful things and improve ourselves. For me, that happened to be in the field of SFX makeup.”
The Palestinian film director and producer Alaa Alaloul praised the efforts of Gaza’s young SFX makeup artists for both overcoming obstacles imposed by Israel’s blockade and challenging society’s norms for what women can and should be doing professionally.
“Usually it’s difficult to create scenes with wounds and blood. However, these artists’ work have enabled us to do such scenes now as if they were real.”
Amjad Ayman Yaghi is a journalist based in Gaza.